Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A love-your-neighbor type of Christian?

Here's a hilarious story from The Onion, and it illustrates what happens when Christians forsake more fundamental issues of faith as part of fighting the culture war. Here is the opening of it:


Everybody has this image of "crazy Christians" based on what they hear in the media, but it's just not true. Most Christians are normal, decent folks. We don't all blindly follow a bunch of outdated biblical tenets or go all fanatical about every bit of dogma. What I'm trying to say is, don't let the actions of a vocal few color your perceptions about what the majority of us are like.

Like me. I may be a Christian, but it's not like I'm one of those wacko "love your neighbor as yourself " types.

God forbid!

I'm here to tell you there are lots of Christians who aren't anything like the preconceived notions you may have. We're not all into "turning the other cheek." We don't spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn't mean we're all obsessed with extremist notions like "righteousness" and "justice."


For the rest of the article

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama as Hitler & Stalin

I recently came across a web posting that hyperventilated about Obama's proposed National Security Force. This posting likened it to something out of Nazi Germany, which I thought might be a bit of a stretch.

I mentioned this to my friend David, and he sent me a link about a congressman warning of this proposal being both Nazi and Marxist. Now, I'm not a political expert, but it seems hard to be both fascist and socialist.

My guess? Worst case scenario is senior citizens in yellow windbreakers with flashlights.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The story of stuff

Like most Americans, we have an obscene amount of stuff in our lives. It's been 6 years since we last moved, and even then we had so many boxes of things.

Here's an interesting video that looks into the origins of stuff. There is nothing radically new here, but it does get you thinking.

Thanks Kelly!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Floyd at a fireworks show (pic)

The town of Mansfield has an annual fireworks show at the end of summer, and this year I took Floyd and his friend to it. Here's a picture of them watching the show. BTW, it really was a full-moon night--I didn't photoshop it in.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Top ten irritating phrases

Here's a list out from researchers at Oxford of the top 10 irritating phrases. Now, I don't know why it had to come from one of the premier universities in the universe... maybe they are easily irritated? Accurate in their irritation?

Anyway, there are amusing.


The top ten most irritating phrases:

1 - At the end of the day

2 - Fairly unique

3 - I personally

4 - At this moment in time

5 - With all due respect

6 - Absolutely

7 - It's a nightmare

8 - Shouldn't of

9 - 24/7

10 - It's not rocket science

Elsewhere in this article, they mention the incorrect use of literally. That's one that bugs me, when people use "literally" when they mean something as figuratively but with greater emphasis. E.g., someone saying "I am literally starving to death" when they have missed lunch.

There's also mention of one of my sister's pet peeves: panini sandwich. (She speaks Italian).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blog turns 2

I wasn't paying attention (imagine that), but David pointed out that I'm entering my third year of blogging. Wow, I took it on as a bit of a lark, and I'm surprised that it's still going. Either I'm waiting to finally have something to say or I've said what little I had to say but I enjoy blogging either way.

No specific plans for the future, but I am enjoying doing it.

BTW, I Googled my name, and I came up with this entry. Google, for whatever reason, has a submenu for this blog. It's probably just because I have it on their blogspot, but I think it's pretty cool looking.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why did I move to New England?

From a travel website for California--why you don't need to go to New England for beautiful fall colors.

"You don't have to go to New England to see the leaves change color. Many state parks in Northern and Southern California display the colors of fall. Cooler weather, fewer visitors, and the changing colors of the landscape make a fall visit to a state park an excellent getaway, whether for a weekend or just a day.

Poison oak is changing color as the vine changes from green to red leaves and can look beautiful climbing up a tree trunk.

Here's a sampling of some sites to visit. (It's always a good idea to call ahead to check on conditions in the park.)"

Hm-m-m-m, a hillside of blazing maple trees or a poison ivy vine. Tough call about what looks the best.

Thanks David!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Conclusion

(Part 13 in a series)

The book Follow Me: What’s Next for You? is the sequel to Willow Creek’s surprise best-seller of last year—Reveal.  Follow Me incorporates additional data collected from 200 churches, as opposed to seven churches in the original Reveal.  In many ways, Follow Me is similar to the original Reveal, but it does place a greater emphasis on explaining the movement from one stage of spiritual growth to the next.  It also invokes the concept of a “gap”, which it defines as the difference between what church-goers want in a church and how satisfied they are with it at their church.

As with Reveal, Follow Me should be commended for asking important questions.  All church leaders should want to know how Christians grow spiritually, and Follow Me focuses us on that issue.  It also demonstrates the relative ease of collecting data, for in a relatively short period of time this study collected data from 80,000 people. 

As with Reveal, Follow Me uses a cross-sectional study design, meaning that it measures respondents’ attitudes, beliefs, and identities at a single point in time.  This type of data is a reasonable starting point for a survey study, but they don’t lend themselves to studying processes over time, such as spiritual growth.  Follow Me asks what changes people over time, but its methods are well suited for measuring change over time.  As such, the analyses are open to a variety of causal interpretations and aren’t as convincing as other, more powerful research designs would be.

 The inherent causal ambiguity of cross-sectional designs is apparent when one compares the causal assumptions of Follow Me versus Reveal.  Reveal concluded that progress on the spiritual continuum, i.e., identifying Christ as more central in one’s life, predicts increased spiritual attitudes and behaviors, e.g., reading the Bible, loving others, loving God.  Follow Me takes the same concepts and flips around the causal order.  It speaks of spiritual attitudes and behaviors as predicting movement on the spiritual continuum.  

Follow Me presents the idea of a gap between what church members want and what they think they get from their churches.  This concept is probably more complex in practice than it is presented in Follow Me, for example, sometimes churches might want to create a gap and other times they might want to fill a gap.  Still, it represents a useful approach for Churches to plan their activities, and regardless of how any given church chooses to respond to such gaps among their members, the churches should certain be aware of them. 

In the conclusion of Follow Me, the Reveal team tells of their future plans for research, research including longitudinal studies and comparisons across types of churches.  I assume that they will continue to ask practical, important questions about spiritual growth, and these more powerful research designs will allow them to address these questions with a greater certainty and, presumably, accuracy. 

Future plans sound exciting.  In doing so, pick practical, actionable questions but use the most power methods available.  Good things are in store for the Reveal ministry of Willow Creek, and I’d like to conclude this review as I did my review of the original Reveal:

“I hope that this series has been helpful to the authors and readers of Reveal. In academics, critical attention is a form of flattery indicating that the discussed work —it indicates that one thinks a work is worth consideration. I believe that Reveal will be looked back upon as an important step in the American Christian Church discovering the value of empirical data.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Do breakthrough findings exist?

(Part 12 in a series)

 The language used in Reveal and Follow Me to describe their findings is very dramatic—“brutal truth”, “provocative discoveries”, “surprising findings”, “breakthrough discoveries”—and these statements are from the covers alone.

It’s worthwhile, then, to step back and think about the endeavor undertaken by Reveal and Follow Me.  These two books explicitly seek to find what causes Christians to grow spiritually and what the church can do to foster it.  This is a noble goal, but they are certainly not unique in pursuing it.

A variety of other researchers have addressed the same basic questions.  Within the Christian church, The Barna Group and Lifeway Research produce a steady stream of research aimed at improving church life.  There have also been many sociological studies of American congregations.  Andy Rowell summarizes this literature as follows:

“There is a rich literature on sociological study of congregations (Mark Chaves, Nancy Ammerman, Stephen Warner, Scott Thumma, Rodney Stark) available but "secrets" and "solutions" are rarely found there--generally their conclusions explode easy answers. There is no substitute for a wise leadership team who continues to experiment and pray and consult with the congregation on how to see the formation of better and more disciples.”

We can take this thinking one step further when we realize that some of the greatest minds in the past 2,000 years have struggled with these questions.  St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and a bunch of other writers I would know better if I went to seminary have written extensively about spiritual growth.

In short, given the considerable amount of research already done, is it reasonable to expect any one study to make “breakthrough” discoveries?  I would be surprised then, and rather skeptical, if someone claimed to find something authentically new that no one in 20 centuries had come across.  Frankly, I don’t know anymore “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” discoveries exist about spiritual growth.   

The situation is analogous to the literature study of Shakespeare.  For several centuries now people have been studying Shakespeare’s plays, and that means that it’s unlikely that anything truly new (and accurate) can be said about them.  A graduate student entering into the study of Shakespeare probably won’t be making any groundbreaking discoveries.

I am not saying we shouldn’t study the processes of spiritual growth, but rather I suspect that the value of empirical studies in this area will be that of incremental, cumulative gain in knowledge and not the one, big, brand-new finding.  Maybe empirical studies of spiritual growth should test time-honored assumptions about what does and doesn’t produce this growth.  Reveal did this when they tested the effect of church services, and while I’m not sure that I agree with their conclusion, I applaud their addressing this issue.

Next: Summary

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The look and sounds of fall

Here's a picture from my office window taken recently. The camera on my computer isn't great, but if you look closely you'll see several hundred geese floating around. They are on their way south, and this pond is a popular rest stop. They can be so loud as to disrupt meetings, especially with people not used to them. I like it a lot, certainly not something I saw a lot of in the suburbs of Fresno, CA.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gravestones and phlox (pic)

Well, another picture of a graveyard. This one in spring. I goofed around with the colors, making the whole picture "colorized" except for the creeping phlox that was in bloom (and caught my eye).

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Is academic research of value to the church?

(Part 11 in a series)

Tucked away in an appendix is a brief statement that summarizes the general approach to research taken by the Reveal team in both Reveal and Follow Me.  They write:

“This is ‘applied’ research rather than ‘pure’ research, meaning that its intent is to provide actionable insights for church leaders, not to create social science findings for academic journals” (p. 148).

I would say that they have it half right.

Let’s start with academic journals.  Most academic researchers, who are usually college professors as well, publish their work in academic journals.  These journals are usually published quarterly, and you find them pretty much only in university libraries—never a popular bookstore such as Barnes and Noble or Borders.  The best known journals for the sociology of religion are the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociology of Religion, and Review of Religious Research.  Never heard of these?  You’re not alone, and that’s why I’m glad that the Reveal Team isn’t aiming to put their findings into these journals. 

Most academic journal articles have little benefit for the church which is why pastors rarely, if ever, read them.  The key question here, however, is why, and I would propose that academic journal articles pick (sometimes obscure) theoretical and empirical issues that have little to do with the day-to-day workings of the church.  What makes academic research on religion mostly irrelevant for church leaders?  It’s the topics chosen by researchers.  On this count, the Reveal team gets high marks for picking topics that really matter for the church.  What could be more fundamental than learning how people grow spiritually and how to promote this growth.

 Here’s where I think that the Reveal Team has it wrong.  In answering often irrelevant questions, academics use overall very strong research methods.  We academics are constantly harping with each other over how best to do research, and this has produced a reasonably powerful approach to research that is forthcoming about the strengths and weaknesses of any given method.  A sure way to get an academic research article shot down during the review process is to claim more understanding than your methods can actually provide.

 This is where I think the Reveal Team would do well to emulate academic research.  Not in the research questions that we choose but rather in the methods that we use.  For example, do you want to ask questions about how people change over time?  Then use methods that follow them over time. 

In contrast to academic research, Follow Me points to what it calls “actionable insights” as its goals for research—empirical information that church leaders can use to grow and prosper their ministry.  Again, I applaud the Reveal Team for looking to be relevant, but the best “actionable insights” would be those rooted in the best research methods.  A simple correlation drawn from a cross-sectional study is sufficiently ambiguous that it may be of relatively little value for the church.  Put differently, I can imagine few empirical findings that would truly benefit the church that don’t also have a clear, defensible causal assumption, and the best way to demonstrate causality is to carefully use the most powerful research methods available.  No causal understanding?  No actionable insight.

 To be fair to the good folks at Reveal, they are planning to do so, and cross-sectional research is a reasonable place to start such a study—one just has to temper one’s conclusions.  Also, what they are doing probably represents the state-of-the-art in church surveys (as done by the churches themselves).  It doesn’t take much exposure to Willow Creek Church to know that they do lots of things very, very well.  Their leadership conference, for example, has amazing, inspirational speakers.  Their main building in South Barrington is beautifully and thoughtfully designed.  Willow Creek has a passion for excellence, and it’s a good bet that this passion will manifest itself in the work of its Reveal ministry.  I expect that within a decade, if Reveal keeps on going, they will be producing true actionable insights by asking the relevant questions and answering them with the most powerful research methods.

Next: Breakthroughs?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Review of Reveal's Follow Me: The gap between importance and satisfaction

(Part 10 in a series)

Perhaps the most intriguing new idea in Follow Me is the what it terms The Gap. No, this isn’t where you go to work after college if you graduate with a sociology degree. Rather, it’s the difference between what church members think is important for a church to do and how satisfied they are with how their church is doing with it. For example, on page 38, Follow Me reports that 87% of its respondents said it was very important for churches to help them to understand the Bible in depth but only 62% were very satisfied with how their church did this. The difference, 25%, represents a gap.

The assumption here is that this type of gap between what people want and what they are getting represents unmet spiritual need, and churches can help their members grow spiritually if they can meet these needs. This makes sense, and I like the idea of churches being aware of what their members want and how their members access their provision of these wants.

This concept of a gap raises some interesting issues. Sometimes, a church can do well filling these gaps. Other times, however, they might need to create gaps where none exist. For example, say a church had 10% who thought serving the poor was very important and 10% who were very satisfied with their churches performance in this area. There would be no gap here, but the church might still want to devote resources to this issue. Perhaps the first step in doing so is to create a gap, i.e., to convince its members of the importance of an issue. With this example, maybe the hypothetical church should launch a teaching series aimed at having its members think of this issue as more important. This would initially have the effect of creating a gap between importance and satisfaction, but it would pave the way for church members to appreciate and participate in the church’s efforts in this area.

In short, sometimes a church best respondents to an existing gap, as per the logic of Follow Me, and other times it needs to create a gap. Either way, it’s worth knowing both importance and satisfaction measures on various church issues, and Follow Me has done the church a service by demonstrating this.

One caveat, however, in thinking about a gap, and that is that the people who think something is important may not be (and probably are not) those who are also satisfied. For example, say 50% of a church thinks that an issue is important, and 50% are satisfied with what the church is doing. Suppose, also, that the church isn’t doing anything with this particular issue. It might be the case, then, that the 50% who think it’s important are all dissatisfied with the church on this issue, and the 50% who are satisfied don’t think anything should be done and they’re just as glad that nothing is being done. Here’s a case where there is no measured gap, but there is substantial unmet need (or “white space”, as Follow Me calls it).

As such, we should perhaps measure the gap at the individual rather than church level. I.e., we should know how many people both view an issue as important and are satisfied with it as well as how many view something as important and are not satisfied.

There’s one other twist with this concept, for Follow Me uses it in two different ways. In its initial treatment, on page 38, the gap is what I described above—the difference between reported importance and satisfaction with an aspect of the church. Later in the book, however, the concept of a spiritual gap is used differently. It’s the difference between ideal and actual—how many people in a church are actually doing something versus complete participation in it. In a way, this latter conceptualization of the gap might be more powerful, for it has the church 1) defining what it expects of its people and 2) working to get every single person there.

Next: Academic research and the church

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Voting behavior of youth

Here's an interesting article about a study done with the Baylor data. The authors conclude that the color of one's church strongly influences one's voting behavior, especially if the candidates are of different races/ ethnic groups. The data come from a survey conducted during the primary season, and it's interesting to see the advantage that Obama had over Clinton with church-goers.

Here's an excerpt from it:

"One of the most powerful predictors of voting behavior is the color of the church they (voters) came out of,” said Dougherty, who specializes in the study of religion, race and ethnicity. “It’s really a startling thing.”

Baylor survey findings

Religious attitudes of presidential candidate supporters






Are “very religious”32%21%28%35%50%
Attend church weekly30%19%24%41%42%
“Evangelical” describes him/her “very well” 14%5%5%21%16%
Read Bible weekly23%13%25%25%35%
Pray daily49%44%44%59%68%
Believe Bible is literal22%14%17%25%27%
Self-reported atheist4%5%6%3%0%
Is “very certain” he/she is going to heaven30%19%27%24%40%
Note: (n=number of respondents who favored a particular candidate)






“Most evil in the world is caused by the devil”43%33%39%56%61%
“My religious views are often ridiculed by media”30%13%21%33%47%
“Science and religion are incompatible”17%19%20%13%13%
“Gov’t should enforce strict separation of church, state”51%61%57%43%35%
“Success of the U.S. is part of God’s plan”31%23%31%39%57%
Note: (n=number of respondents who favored a particular candidate)

Sociologists and ethnographers have long decried 11 a.m. Sunday as “the most segregated hour of the week” in America, he said. But the Baylor study seems to put teeth into those words, quantifying what the potential impact of such social segregation might be."

Thanks Jim for the link!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Do church services matter? Apparently yes.

(Part 9 in a series)

The most provocative finding of the original Reveal study was that church activities don’t matter in spiritual growth, and, by extension, the Willow Creek model didn’t seem to work as well as advertised. This was the first of six key discoveries by Reveal. “Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth” (p. 33). Reveal tempered this conclusion by suggesting that church activities might have more importance in the early stages of spiritual growth than in the later stages (p. 41). This was confirmation for critics of Willow Creek and consternation for its supporters.

Follow Me tells a different story about church activities as a whole, for it concludes that they matter at every stage of spiritual growth. In fact, it appoints church activities as one of the four main catalysts for spiritual growth. “The church is the most significant organized influence on spiritual growth, so the activities of the church naturally emerge as important catalytic factors” (p. 36). Like Reveal, it suggests that weekend services matter most for those earlier in their walk with Christ. However, small groups, adult education, and additional teaching and worship services significantly matter later in the spiritual continuum (p. 37).

Given the big news that Reveal’s original conclusion made, I wonder if it would have been as widely attended to if it had come to the conclusion of Follow Me.

Also, I’m not sure that Follow Me has correctly interpreted their own data. Consider the chart on page 58. It shows a blue line representing frequency of participation in weekend services as it varies by the four stages of the spiritual continuum. This chart doesn’t give numbers, but eyeballing the data, it appears that about 65% of stage 1 respondents routinely attended weekend services, 85% of stage 2 respondents, 90% of stage 3 respondents, and 95% of stage 4 respondents. So, there’s an increase of 20 percentile points for the first transition, and five for each of the following. This appears to support Follow Me’s conclusion that weekend services matter the most for the first transition.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the numbers here can’t go above 100%, and so perhaps the most useful measure is not percentile points but rather percentage changed. Here’s what I mean. If 35% of stage 1 respondents do not attend services weekly, and only 15% of stage 2 respondents do not, this is a reduction of 57% (i.e., 20/35). Using this more-appropriate measure, weekend service attendance appears to change considerably from stage 3 to stage 4, where it drops from 10% not frequently attending to 5%--a change on the same order as stage 1 to stage 2. Obviously the stage 3 group can not make a 20 percentile point gain, for that take them to 110% (and this isn’t the movie Spinal Tap).

In short, if we accept the causal logic of Follow Me, its own data suggests that weekend service attendance provide substantial movements across stages of the spiritual continuum—much different than the “brutal” and “shocking” discoveries of Reveal. In a way this is anti-climatic, almost as if Follow Me is saying “never mind” about Reveal’s best-known finding.

Next: The gap

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Is the spiritual continuum a useful concept?

(Part 8 in a series)

In my review of Reveal, I wrote at length about the spiritual continuum, and, overall, I suggested that it rated low in both usefulness and accuracy. I won’t repeat my prior writing about it, but I would like to make two points.

In two places, Follow Me states that spiritual growth in not linear, but in reading its explanation of linearity, I’m not sure that Follow Me has it quite right. Page 77 presents a graphical representation of Follow Me’s idea of non-linearity. It shows silhouetted male and female figures walking down the spiritual continuum. Sometimes their beliefs and attitudes propel them forward, sometimes church activities, sometimes spiritual practices, and sometimes spiritual activities with others. In both cases the figures move forward from stage 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. This is still linear growth. I think that Follow Me means is multimodal catalysts—that different inputs matter most at different times in a Christian’s walk. Fair enough.

If in fact there is a multi-stage process in spiritual growth, it’s possible that Christians go back and forth between stages as part of their journey. Sometimes we move forward, but sometimes we return to basic issues and concerns of the faith. Spiritual maturation could be one of two steps forward, one step back.

The other point has to do with the measurement of the spiritual continuum. As I mentioned previously, I took the Follow Me survey as a member of one of its churches. In doing so, I had the chance to study the survey instrument that they used, and as far as I can tell, they create the four-stage spiritual continuum measure from a single question with seven possible answers. I’m not sure how these get translated into a four-stage process, for it certainly isn’t obvious looking at the question itself.

As a courtesy to the Reveal team, I’m not reprinting the question (though I believe that one can reprint excerpts from even copyrighted material as part of a review). I will, however, strongly encourage them to be more explicit about how they create some of their key measures. Survey research works best with full disclosure—informing readers about how you do things and why. This gives readers a chance to more fully understand the analyses.

This isn’t just a Reveal thing, for I’ve noticed that other Christian researchers, such as the Barna Group, are also rather guarded about how they conduct their research. As a result, it’s difficult to gauge the quality of this work.

Next: Do Church services matter?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A photography favor

Could I ask a favor? I'm donating some of my photographs to an art auction for charity, and I have no idea which ones people might like. If you have the time, could you look over my photo collection, and tell me which ones you like best? That would help me to get a sense of which to give.

When I look at them, I only see what's wrong or what I could have done better--I think that I'm too close to them to have a sense of which would sell best.

Thank you!

Birds on a post (pic)

I don't get down to the shore very often, though it's only 40 minutes away. Here is a bird pic from a previous visit. I'm not big into bird photography, but I do like the shapes here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Which comes first? Spiritual growth or spiritual behaviors and attitudes?

(Part 7 in a series)

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me with Follow Me is its flipping around of the causal story of Reveal. The first discovery reported by Reveal was that progress on a spiritual continuum was a powerful predictor of long-term spiritual growth (pp. 33-37). In other words, the more that people identify Christ as central in their lives, the more likely they to have spiritual behaviors and attitudes reflective of spiritual growth. These include tithing, evangelism, serving, love for God, and love for people.

Spiritual continuum → change in spiritual attitudes and behaviors

In Follow Me, however, the story goes the other way. In presenting possible catalysts for progression along the spiritual continuum, Follow Me lists the first catalyst as spiritual behaviors and attitudes (p. 27, 31-35).

Spiritual attitudes and behaviors → change in spiritual continuum

Taken together, the message of Reveal and Follow Me is that if you want Christians to read the Bible more, you should move them along the spiritual continuum (that is, increase the centrality of Christ in their lives). In order to move them along the spiritual continuum, you should have them read the Bible more. While Follow Me explicitly acknowledges that evangelism can be both a cause and an effect of growing faith (p. 46), the same could be said about every factor examined in the book.

The net result is circular logic that I’m not sure is helpful or practical for church leaders. For example, one of the two “breakthrough” discoveries of Follow Me is that reading the Bible is a powerful catalyst for spiritual growth. Neither the data nor the conceptual models employed by Reveal and Follow Me tell us whether this is true. It could be that spiritual growth results in an increased appetite for reading the Bible, or it could be both, i.e., bidirectional causality.

My guess is that the most helpful model will prove to be one that doesn’t separate spiritual identity, behavior, and attitudes, but rather one that combines them as the desired outcomes. They become different facets of one, underlying concept, and the question then becomes:

? → spiritual growth and spiritual continuum.

Next: Is the spiritual continuum useful?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Answering longitudinal questions with cross-sectional data

(Part 6 in a series)

Turning to concerns about Follow Me, given the similarity of methods of Follow Me and Reveal, they share some of the same weaknesses, and so some of the shortcomings that I discuss here will amplify issues raised in my previous review of Reveal. Follow Me asks an important question: “What moves a person from one stage of spiritual growth to the next” (p. 27). This question is also a longitudinal question in that it concerns how people change over time. What are the sequential stages of spiritual growth? What are the catalysts between these stages? Basically, how and why do people become more spiritually mature over time?

In contrast to the over-time focus of its research questions, the research methods of Follow Me are cross-sectional—portraying each respondent at only one point in time. This disconnection between questions and methods mean causes some problems; specifically, the methods are not well suited for studying change over time. In fact, it’s not clear how much they can at all.

Here’s an illustration. Suppose that we went to a track meet and took a photograph of a race in progress. This photograph would describe the race at one point in time, so it could tell us some things such as who is winning the race and by how much. It would not describe, however, how the race is changing over time. So, just from the photograph, we can not tell if the second-place runner is catching up to the leader or following back. We don’t know how the runners’ relative positions have changed since the start of the race.

Similarly, the analyses of Follow Me tell us which respondents are at which stage at that particular time, but they tell us much less about how the person is changing over time. This means that the study design does not lend itself well to analyses of catalysts and movements and other changes over time. In other words, it's hard to know why some people move from stage to stage while others do not.  Unfortunately, this is the substantive focus of Follow Me.

Follow Me asks an important question, and it uses a perfectly acceptable research design, but it’s the wrong design for the question. The use of cross-sectional data to study longitudinal processes results in various confusion about what’s the cause and what’s the effect, as we’ll see in the next post of this series.

Next: Causal ordering

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): What’s New?

(Part 5 in a series)

Given that Follow Me is a follow-up of Reveal, it’s worth asking how it’s different. While Follow Me has the same look as Reveal, with similar graphics and layout, it has a somewhat different feel. Reveal was parsimonious in presentation and told a memorable story. Follow Me, in contrast, meanders somewhat, and it feels less focused. The book presents two breakthrough discoveries (Chapter 5): Christians can do better, and reading the Bible prompts spiritual growth. Now, I’m not an expert in church matters, but it’s not clear to me that these represent breakthroughs—I’ve certainly heard them in countless sermons. Still, it’s good to be reminded of their truth.

As I understand the chronology of the Reveal ministry, they collected data several years before publishing Reveal and then they published Follow Me a year or so after Reveal—may just months after they finished collected the additional data used in Follow Me. I wonder if the book would have benefited from additional time to assimulate and make sense of the data. I found myself wondering if the publication of the book was somewhat rushed. Not only did it not have the tight focus of their previous book, but it had some duplicated sections. For example pages 47 and 77 contain similar discussions of whether spiritual growth is linear. Pages 19 and 26 present the same figure.

It’s worth thinking about how much value is added by Follow Me’s increased sample size, and as far as I understand their sampling procedure, it’s an open question as to how much the substantial increase in sample size actually increases the validity of the findings. Here’s why: The value of sample is its representativeness of a larger population, not in it size per se (at least after a certain point). For example, if we want to use a public opinion poll to predict a presidential election, we’d much rather have a national, random sample of only 100 voters than we would a sample of 10,000 voters from the same conservative or liberal region of the country.

The original Reveal sample of about 5,000 respondents and the Follow-Me sample of about 80,000 respondents are both plenty big to detect statistical differences between groups (called statistical power). Both Reveal and Follow-Me use convenience samples, meaning the researchers took easily-accessed churches rather than drawing a random sample of all churches in the country. According to Reveal (Reveal, p. 93), its seven churches were selected to be geographically and culturally diverse. Follow Me chose 200 churches out of 1,700 that applied at Willow Creek’s annual Leadership Conference. Probably the 200-church sample better represents American Christians than the 7 church sample, but we can’t know for sure with both being convenience samples. At the very least, Follow Me studies a certain kind of church—those that have leaders who attend the Leadership Conference and apply to be in surveys. Perhaps this type of church is not representative of American churches.

The real value of having 200, rather than 7, churches is not in the increased sample size but rather it allows for across-church comparisons. In describing its sample, Follow Me describes its churches as varying along a number of dimensions. They are from different regions of the country, they are of varying sizes, they come from different denominations, and they have different worship styles. Why not, then, see how these different types of churches vary in the processes described in Follow Me? For example, does the spiritual continuum work differently for Baptists versus Lutherans? Does satisfaction with the church services matter more for people in mega-churches than small churches? These types of findings would allow the folks at Willow Creek to test if their conclusions hold for different types of churches. Put differently, Reveal concluded that church programs were not “one-size-fits-all.” It’s likewise a possibility that explanations for spiritual formation do not apply equally well for all types of churches, that they too are not “one-size-fits-all.”

Next: Cross-sectional data

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Why vote? A hilarious video

Here's a video sent to me by my son, Gus, and it's probably the most clever piece of campaign advertising that I've ever seen!

Once the election is over, I have no idea what I'll do with my time. I spend way took much time reading the election survey websites.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Why Collect Data

(Part 4 in a series)

Another strength of Follow Me is that it models some of the possible uses of data for a local church. It would seem that church leaders would benefit from knowing what their church members want. In addition to thinking and praying about this, church leaders can also just ask them, and Follow Me demonstrates how to do this. As shown on page 38, Follow Me asked respondents what they thought was important in a church and if they were satisfied with it in their own church.

Likewise, these data can be used to find out which groups in a church are most or least satisfied. Once satisfaction data are collected, it’s a simple matter to compute satisfaction scores for separate types of people in a church—young, old, male, female, white, racial minority, small group members, new members, and long-time attendees.

Once church leadership has this information—what their people want and who is satisfied, they can act in a variety of ways. They can use this information in guiding them in creating programs tailor made for where their church members are at. Or, they can alter existing programs to better fit what people want. Or, they can keep the programs the same but explain to their members why they are doing so, to clear up any concerns or misunderstandings.

I attend a church that took part in Follow Me, and so I took the survey as a respondent, and I also met with the leadership while they discussed the survey results. I did have a few concerns about the survey itself; for example, my church was started three years ago, but according to the survey, 9% of the respondents from this church reported attending for 5 years or more. I don’t know if this was a goof on the part of the respondents themselves or by the Reveal program in analyzing the data.

Nonetheless, the church leadership found some of the results helpful in their planning for the coming years, especially who was satisfied/dissatisfied with which aspects of the church. After listening to the discussion, I cam away thinking that the discussion itself, perhaps more so than the specific findings of the church survey, was important. Just the fact that the leadership was talking about who wanted what seemed like a good idea, and they made conclusions that went far beyond the data themselves. As such, the very process of taking a survey and working out what it means seems valuable as an opportunity to question church assumptions and traditions. It is a time to rethink a church's standard procedures.

Next: What's new?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Strengths of the Study

(Part 3 in a series)

As with the original Reveal, Follow Me gets high marks for asking the right question. Its focus is one spiritual growth, and it wants to know what moves a person from one stage of spiritual growth to another. It seems to me that this kind of question should be on the minds of every church leader—where do they want the Church to go, and how do they get it there? This obviously isn’t a new question for the church, for it’s been around for 2,000 years, but Follow Me reminds us of its importance.

Follow Me also reports an ambitious, on-going data collection effort. There are limitations, of course, to what the Church can learn from quantitative data, but we’re no where near those limits yet. Many of the questions routinely asked by church leaders can be answered, or at least informed, by collecting data. I foresee a time when individual churches routinely survey their members as part of their leadership activities. Again, not that the information from surveys is more “true” or valuable than other forms of information—I’m not advocating an empirically-driven church—rather collecting data is an easy, usually-valuable tool that belongs that all churches should consider.

Another strength of Follow Me is its illustration of how easy it is to collect data. So far the Reveal team has collected data from 150,000 people, and it appears that they did so for a minimal amount of time and money. They set up a web-based survey and had local churches recruit people to participate in the survey. Once filled out, the surveys were automatically converted to a database that the Reveal team could then analyze.

Compare this to the situation of even 20-30 years ago when a survey of 150,000 people would have involved 150,000 printed surveys manually entered into a data base. Web-based surveys are remarkably easy to conduct using inexpensive surveys such as It seems to be taking the church a little while to figure how easy surveys are, that they are something that could easily be done by any pastor or church leader. Once church leaders figure this out, church surveys might become as common as church newsletters or bulletins.

Next: Why Collect Data?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Dogwoods and wall (pic)

You'd be surprised how hard it is to find dogwoods in bloom this time of year...